A $315 million mall, less than four months from a celebrated planned grand opening, is rightfully the belle of the current retail real estate conversation in Sarasota-Bradenton.
But that development, The Mall at University Town Center, an 880,000-square-foot luxury center scheduled to open Oct. 16 just west of Interstate 75 in North Sarasota, isn’t the only hot project around.
Buzz is also percolating on another retail-infused center, a few miles south.
The less-heralded project, not even out of the ground and at least five years in the making, is the Fruitville Initiative.
It’s a public-private partnership between residents, Sarasota County and five property owners that covers a mostly vacant 320-acre tract east of Interstate 75 at the Fruitville Road exit. The project could deliver something not often seen at highway interchanges: An anti-big-box approach built in a mixed-use, New Urbanism style that places a premium on walking and interconnected streets. The project could include a hotel, small offices, retail and restaurants.
“The level of excitement is rising,” says David Walters, whose family controls about 40 acres in the Fruitville Initiative. “This is really happening.”
The larger area around the planned Fruitville Initiative has more than 3,500 homes and 3 million square feet of office and industrial space. The direct area that surrounds it includes the Celery Fields, a popular, county-owned bird watching and wildlife preserve. Yet short of a gas station, there aren’t any shops and restaurants.
“To get retail, people have to get on I-75 or go under it,” says Stephen Suau, a civil engineer and principal with Sarasota-based Progressive Water Resources, who has studied the project. “It’s almost like suburbia has already happened, but there is no urban core. The Fruitville Initiative would be the last piece.”
Suau, with assistance from Sarasota County planning official Beth Rozansky, recently delivered a presentation on the history and status of the Fruitville Initiative to about 50 commercial real estate brokers and bankers. The Commercial Investment Division of the Sarasota Association of Realtors hosted the event.
Interest dates back to 2010, when Sarasota County conducted public workshops and charrettes to get input from local residents, business owners and developers. The consensus from those sessions: no giant retailers and be different.
“It’s the road that leads to downtown,” says Walters, a developer of multiple retail projects on the Gulf Coast. “It needs to be something special.”
County commissioners approved a comprehensive plan amendment in 2010 based on those sessions. But momentum stalled soon after County Administrator Jim Ley resigned from a procurement scandal.
Enthusiasm has since returned, leading up to three more important meetings: The Sarasota County Planning Commission will look at the project in July, and two rezone meetings are scheduled for the full County Commission in September.
Commissioners have supported the project in the past, but even that doesn’t guarantee success.
Regulatory agencies, such as the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, are in the mix, and more government usually leads to more complications.
“When you try to get this many moving parts to agree, it’s hard,” Walters says. “The challenges are just plain bureaucracy.”
But Walters remains optimistic the initiative’s time has finally come.
“In real estate development you have one chance,” he says. “If you do it wrong, you’re broke.”